Young people in Silicon Valley think it is pretty cool when I tell them I am an engineer. By contrast, many adults in Britain still conjure up an initial picture of me as a “grease monkey”—working under the bonnet of a vehicle, or repairing household electrical equipment. Young people generally have very little awareness of engineers’ roles.
Who (or what) is an engineer? Merriam-Webster’s relevant definition seems to be:
3 a : a designer or builder of engines b : a person who is trained in or follows as a profession a branch of engineering c : a person who carries through an enterprise by skillful or artful contrivance
And “engineering” is:
2 a : to contrive or plan out usually with more or less subtle skill and craft <engineer a business deal> b : to guide the course of <engineer a rally>
These definitions are rather unhelpfully vague, but I do like the emphasis on the use of “subtle skill and craft.” What I was looking for was some indication that these are people who have a lot of applied skill and knowledge. They are truly competent individuals.
It has been my impression that the main difference between scientists and engineers of various flavors is that scientists are often somewhat more concerned with the “why” of things, and the underlying theory, while the engineers get to deal with the “how” and all the practical applications of understanding the real-world implications of those theories. (Like the difference between educational cognitive researchers and teachers, for another example.)
But this past weekend, I was forced to admit that my definition of “engineer” may, in fact, be rather different from that of other people, and is perhaps overly influenced by the number of competent engineers that I know. I encountered what seemed to me to be an utterly antithetical use of the job description term “engineer” at a conference I was attending as a vendor. In trying to use our credit card machine, as we kept losing connection before any transactions could be completed, requiring us to run customers’ cards up to six times before the data actually went through. The hotel sent us an “engineer” to fix the phone line.
He worked on the problem for 5 hours, and never fixed it. He did not, in fact, even understand the nature of the problem. My boss had to call her husband (an actual IT professional, perhaps, one might say, a computer engineer) to get a real explanation, at which point we determined that the hotel “engineer” would never be able to fix it, given his complete and utter incompetence in this area, leaving me to wonder just what in the world the hotel management is using as their definition of “engineer.” I’m not entirely sure I want to know.